Jessica Halper MPH, RNutr, always has health on her mind. Today, she’s here to help make sense of all the conflicting information surrounding low-carb diets.
Are all carbs created equal? It’s a hot topic, and a persistent pain point for those looking to cut back on carbs. While the craze around carbohydrates is nothing new, demand for the low-carb market has soared in recent years. Global sales of low-carb products are expected to reach $15.64 billion by 2027. Unsurprisingly, grocery and food manufacturers have jumped on this wagon, producing low-carb alternatives to everything from chocolate cookies to ice cream. In fact, keto—a low-carb, high fat diet—was the most ‘Googled’ diet in 2020.
While our understanding of carbohydrates has evolved since the days of the Atkins Diet, some still maintain that carbohydrates are a dietary villain. All carbs are inherently bad and fattening, right? Not so fast. Like most topics in nutrition, the science is more nuanced than good versus “evil.”
Like calories, it’s imperative to first define carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient composed of sugar molecules. Along with proteins and fats, carbohydrates are one of the three main nutrients found in food and drink that contribute to a balanced diet. In fact, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source, and are required daily to power both the brain and working muscles. So, before officially excommunicating carbs from your diet, read on.
What are simple carbs?
At the chemical level, all carbohydrates contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. However, even though all carbohydrates are composed of these building blocks, their structure and behaviors vary. Simple carbohydrates (monosaccharides and disaccharides) are digested and absorbed by the body easily. Think of these as quick fuel. These simple carbs are naturally found in foods such as fruits, milk, and milk products, but they are also found in processed and refined foods such as candy, table sugar, syrup and soft drinks.
What are complex carbs?
Complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides) are digested and absorbed by the body over a longer period of time, and provide a more lasting source of energy. They are found in a variety of foods including peas , beans, whole grains, and vegetables. However, because the category includes all starches, they are also present in refined foods such as white bread and pasta, suggesting that while complex carbs are a better energy option, nutritionally, the jury is still out.
Choosing the Best Carbs for Your Diet
It’s easy to get lost in this mess of organic chemistry, but hope is not lost when choosing the best carbs to support a healthy diet. People don’t eat nutrients, they eat food. Assessing the quality of your carbohydrates is key because not all carbs are created equal. Carbohydrates that are high in fiber, such as whole grains and fresh produce are an excellent source of the macronutrient. Not only are high-fiber foods metabolized more slowly—mitigating blood sugar spikes—they are also rich in vitamins and minerals.
By the same token, refined carbs—those that have been stripped of their fibrous bran and kernel—are a poorer choice. These carbs, which include white bread and white rice, are digested quickly, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin. Table sugar, or sucrose, is the most common refined carbohydrate. Unlike other simple sugars found in fruit and milk, sucrose provides no nutritional value aside from energy. This is why it’s deemed an “empty calorie.” Empty calories, which unfortunately comprise a large part of the American diet, can have a negative impact on your health, leading to weight gain and chronic disease.
A low-carbohydrate diet is still a good choice for those looking to lose or manage their weight. However, when cutting back on the carbs, be mindful of those you eliminate. Work with a doctor or nutritionist to devise a plan that best fits your body’s needs. Eliminate refined carbs, and choose those that are high in fiber such as whole grains and legumes. Support your plan with moderate portions of lean protein (both animal and plant), healthy sources of fat and, as always, an array of fruits and vegetables, either frozen or fresh.
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